“Well, I’ll start at the beginning.” Jovon Tyler speaks eloquently and thoughtfully, pouring out a heartbreaking and inspiring story of his past to his present: a violent childhood, teenage homelessness, bouts of depression and drug abuse, followed by a rocky uphill climb to his now steady life of giving back and bringing joy to those around him.
Jovon’s mother was only nineteen when she found herself pregnant, and he never knew his father. Jovon’s birth mother, he explains, almost aborted him. According to Jovon, his grandmother was a tough lady, and his mother wasn’t sure whether she was going to “get sweet or sour” when she broke the news. In the end, she got the sweet side, and Jovon’s grandparents agreed to raise him.
Throughout his childhood, Jovon’s mother fell deeper into drugs and alcohol, and was chronically homeless. As he grew older, Jovon’s grandmother beat him regularly, at times with anything she could get her hands on. At the age of fifteen, Jovon decided that living on the street would be a better situation. He left home and spent his days in a gay youth centre downtown, sleeping nights on hospital bathroom floors, on buses or in backyards.
After a year of being homeless, Jovon happened to meet Annise Parker at the shelter where he was staying. “She became a friend to me; we connected because of our interest in politics.”
Jovon would later learn that Parker reached out to his grandmother, asking if she and her partner, Kathy Hubbard, could raise Jovon. According to Jovon, his grandmother declined the offer, but their paths would cross again. Several months later, Jovon ran into Parker at a local pride parade. They caught up, and Parker learned Jovon was still homeless. He recalls, “She said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and reached in her pocket and handed me the keys to her house. When I walked into her house, I felt I had finally met my mother for the first time. Not to criticize my own mother, because she was trapped in addiction. And not to criticize my grandmother, because she had her own issues. But I had a position open for mother and Annise filled it.”
Parker and her partner helped Jovon join Americorps, and he began working at the YMCA and was certified as a lifeguard. Jovon worked for Parker in her city council office, but his upward trajectory soon took a downward turn.
In a short period, both Jovon’s grandmother and his birth mother, with whom he had just begun a friendship, died, sending Jovon into a deep depression. He explains, “I began using drugs with the sole goal of killing myself. I felt I had been robbed.” Jovon ended up back on the street, challenging God to reveal to him his purpose for living. “Over the course of those thirty days, He gradually revealed to me why my life mattered.” Jovon entered a rehab facility in rural Texas and eventually made his way back to Houston.
“I learned I wanted a life where I could help someone new every day for the rest of my life.” Inspiringly, he has. After attempts at other service vocations, Jovon settled on a somewhat unlikely career as operations manager at a funeral home. He earned his GED, went to mortuary school and got a job at Bradshaw Carter Funeral Home, where he has worked for seven years. Jovon is now engaged, and he and his partner are planning to marry and hope to start a family.
In the spirit of giving back, Jovon undertook a project to help build a school for orphans in Zambia. On a mission trip to the southern African nation, he remembers asking a group of orphan boys what they wanted most. He was moved when they all said ‘school’. “Here I was, I didn’t get a degree, didn’t like school, and who was I to turn my nose up at education when that’s all these kids want? For five years I made it my mission to have a school built.” That school, the Tree of Life Children’s School, now serves hundreds of orphaned children in Lusaka, Zambia. “Who would have thought the kid that nobody wanted would grow up to be a man who would cherish the kids nobody wanted.”
By Emily Westbrooks